Just last year, the King of Rock and Roll took center stage in a lively biopic, sweeping awards season. Yet, simultaneously, another film was in production that featured the prolific music artist from a different perspective. Sofia Coppola’s latest work, following her 2020 film “On the Rocks,” adapts Priscilla Presley’s 1985 memoir “Elvis and Me.” This film zeroes in on the woman behind the icon, a woman who forged her own identity and legacy. “Priscilla” stands as another masterpiece in Coppola’s body of work, offering a deep character study of a woman confined in a gilded cage and her quest for freedom. The film showcases two outstanding performances that are destined to be counted among the best in Coppola’s impressive filmography.
While “Priscilla” will inevitably invite comparisons to Elvis, within Coppola’s own oeuvre, it may be seen as a companion piece to her elegantly understated biopic “Marie Antoinette.” The narrative kicks off during Priscilla’s high school years when she is studying in Germany while living with her family. At just 14, she crosses paths with the 24-year-old Elvis, who is serving in the military at the time. Priscilla is swiftly drawn into Elvis’s world when she visits his rented German home with friends, a world that is both unfamiliar and alluring. Cailee Spaeny portrays the young Priscilla with a delicate mix of naiveté and unwavering curiosity. She knows what she wants—or at least, she believes she does.
Jacob Elordi’s performance is pivotal to the film’s success. Unlike Austin Butler’s bombastic, almost campy portrayal of Elvis in the previous biopic, Elordi’s Elvis exudes seductiveness and an underlying sense of menace. He appears bashful in Priscilla’s presence, but there are glimpses of a darker side that complicate his relationship with her, revealing his need for control both in his private and public life. Elordi’s portrayal is subtle yet unsettling, a stark departure from the more overt evil of his character Nate Jacobs in “Euphoria.” Witnessing Priscilla’s reactions and adaptations to this dynamic adds depth and intrigue to her journey in the film.
As Priscilla arrives at Graceland, Coppola’s film takes on a sense of claustrophobia, emphasizing the confines that surround her. Elvis’s bedroom is dimly lit, akin to a cave, and the couple spends a significant amount of time there. However, as Elvis disappears for extended periods, Graceland starts to feel more like a prison than a castle. This is where the parallels with “Marie Antoinette” become most apparent—two young women transplanted into unfamiliar environments and perched like trophies in their respective palaces. While Marie refuses to leave, Priscilla yearns for the outside world.
Spaeny delivers a standout performance, and the film’s hair and makeup team effectively convey Priscilla’s transformation from a doe-eyed and amiable young girl into a woman with agency who knows her own mind. As glimpses of Elvis’s darker side emerge, Spaeny’s eyes reflect a mix of fear and weariness before a resolute determination takes over in the film’s closing scenes. It’s a breakthrough performance that certainly merits awards recognition, as does Elordi’s portrayal of Elvis. Their on-screen chemistry is palpable and adds weight to their inevitable conclusion.
Coppola’s portrayal of freedom is not about dramatic displays of rebellion, and that’s where the beauty of “Priscilla’s” story lies. Despite the portrayal of power imbalances, manipulation, and even abuse, the heart of the film is a young woman coming into her own as she discovers her true self, despite the world around her insisting that she is merely a replaceable cog in the celebrity machine. Priscilla refuses to be defined by Elvis’s whims and his eventual toxic behavior, which is briefly glimpsed towards the film’s end. The story is not about him or his ending; it’s about Priscilla’s journey and her new beginning, after living in Elvis’s shadow for so long.